Just one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes of E. Africa can make you rethink who and what you are. We just led an ecotour through the three national parks of Rwanda: Nyungwe in the southwest, Akagera in the northeast and Volcanoes in the northwest. At dinner on the last evening of the eight-day tour we asked what people enjoyed most and memories of the gorillas were high on everyone’s list.
The gorilla experience begins with an overnight stay in a Musanze hotel or a lodge near the park entrance. The next morning starts early with a quick breakfast before heading up to the park. There your guide or driver meets with the park rangers to decide which of ten families of gorillas will be your host. They limit each group to eight tourists and try to match the hiking skills and abilities of guests to the distance and challenge of the terrain, but the gorillas ultimately determine how challenging the day will be as they wander through their territories. Our tour group of ten people was split into two smaller groups of five based on physical abilities. Our “fast” group was fit and everyone able to hike quickly. The slower group was older and had some heart, lung, or knee issues that affected their hiking ability at the altitude of 8500 to 9000 feet.
While we waited for our guides, we drank coffee and tea and conversed with people from all over the world, all of which had come to see the mountain gorillas. Our slower group met with Oliver and Ferdinand, the guides who would take us to see the Agashya family. From the headquarters office, we drove several miles and parked in a small village to begin our slow, steady trek upward through potato and pyrethrum fields. Porters offered to carry our gear and assist us with climbing through the harder spots. Two kilometers later we crossed through the stone-wall boundary into the park where trekking through bamboo thickets and fern openings becomes slicker and more challenging. Two and one half hours after starting, we were near the gorillas. The guides collected our walking sticks, water bottles and extra gear and left them behind with the porters while we continued up another three minutes into the presence of a large silverback, Agashya, and his family.
It was a long and somewhat challenging trek but the hour watching young gorillas wrestle and tumble, mother gorillas nursing or tending their babies and Agashya watching over it all is humbling and inspiring.
Mountain gorilla populations in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo have grown in the past two decades from a low of 230 to more than 880 in the recent census of 2013. Tourism fees provide tens of millions of dollars to support guards, guides, and researchers that protect these vulnerable primates from poachers. Hundreds of millions of dollars in lodging, food and transportation income support local communities and the economies of the three nations. Five percent of revenues from the $750 gorilla permits goes directly back to the villages surrounding the park. The investment in the future protection and understanding of these magnificent primates and human relatives depends on this tourism transaction.
When a 450-pound mountain gorilla studies you, looking deep into your eyes, there is a moment of connection that transcends the need for language. The gorillas tolerate our presence. Agashya’s expression speaks volumes. He is patient with this daily intrusion and you have to wonder if he knows how tenuous the survival of his family is, how dependent they are on humans fighting to conserve these special places where they can live in their own habitat, wild and free. This daily détente with our cousins is worth every dollar, every step up the mountain.